The nuance in rising property values, retired residents, & choices for aldermen.

I have a constituent I know very well. When I was first elected, he was fairly skeptical of me, but over the years we worked together on a number of neighborhood related issues together and got to know one another. Today I’d call him my friend. He is 69 years old and has been retired since he was about 63 when he was laid off from his last job. He was mostly a carpenter by trade. He bought his house when he was 21 years old around 1970. He and his wife raised three kids in the home. His wife became ill and over the last 20 years he slowly became her primary caregiver as her health declined. A few months ago she unexpectedly passed away. He told me he gave her CPR until an ambulance arrived. He was with her as she died.

He and his wife had been primarily living on Social Security since his retirement. With their two Social Security checks they were getting by, but not much more. Their house had been paid off, but he’d taken out a home equity loan for part of the value to help pay for her expenses while she was ill.

After she passed away, he told me he looked at his finances and realized it wasn’t going to work with only one Social Security income. When his wife passed away, the household income was essentially cut in half. He wouldn’t have enough to pay the home equity loan and take care of himself. We were talking about how he had to pack up all his wife’s clothes to donate them. He is a stoic person but he was obviously affected by it. The idea of cleaning out a spouse’s clothes and leaving the neighborhood he’d lived in most of his life was obviously an emotional challenge.

He happens to live in an area that’s had a pretty steady clip of new home infill construction in recent years. Vacant lots have been built on, and the economics even work when a builder can get an inexpensive tear down home or buy something out of foreclosure. New homes are selling for up to $350,000, which is above the average for the neighborhood and certainly more than I could afford. Some have had some level of tax abatement and some have not.

He had realized his lot was just shy of enough square footage to divide into two lots. Essentially he had a double lot, and if he could sell it to a builder as two lots he though it was worth more than selling it as a house to renovate. It looked like it would be enough to pay off the home equity loan and walk away with some cash. The home itself, while not beyond saving, had so much deferred maintenance that it would be a gut rehab. The land itself was probably worth more as two lots.

There is a lot of rhetoric about how rising property and housing values can hurt retired residents. And you get no argument about that from me in cities that have seen meteoric rises in property values on the coasts. But this is the flip side. Without the fairly-steady rise of values in this neighborhood, this retired life long resident of the neighborhood would be up a creek without a paddle. The equity he had in his home helped him take care of his wife, and the demand for new housing will probably allow him to sell his property, pay off his loan, and find a new place to live. Are these pleasant choices? No. But they are the type of choices many retired people face.

The equity my friend had accumulated in his home was an asset. It was a little bit financial capacity to see him through a difficult period. And it’s what many St. Louis residents have missed out on as hundreds of thousands of people have left St. Louis. Depopulation undermines demand and lowers values. The result has been a slow-motion financial disaster for many homeowners, particularly black homeowners in St. Louis. The equity my friend was able to accumulate is something residents of many neighborhoods with declining value have missed out on. Not having a financial asset in the form of home value is one of the reasons for the huge wealth gap between white and black residents in the U.S. that has finally gotten more attention.

During this election I’ve heard candidates say some version of, “We shouldn’t allow $350,000 homes in this neighborhood. We shouldn’t allow zoning variances for home builders.” This conversation happens to some extent across the city. It seems like there is always a lot of skepticism and even fear of new housing. But without investment values property values decline, equity never accumulates, and ultimately current residents are hurt if and when they need to sell a home or get a loan.

Where does the alderman come in? Will the next alderman allow the subdivision of this resident’s property into two lots, which he might sell for $100,000 total? Or will the next alderman not allow it, and essentially take $50,000 in value away from the current owner?

Skyrocketing property values have rightly gotten a lot of attention in certain coastal cities that tend to dominate the conversation on urbanism. But the dynamic in many Midwestern cities is far different. Declining values here have sadly left homeowners in some neighborhoods with nothing. I hope the next alderman recognizes the difference, and as a city we continue to engage with the nuance involved when property values rise, and the real strife that results when they decline.

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Missouri Taketh Away: Missouri Has Aggressively Dismantled its Social Safety Net

What kind of place is Missouri? Over the last two decades it has become a place that’s harder on people when they need help and provides less assistance to people trying to climb out of poverty. State policy has become less and less forgiving if you lose a job or have a child without a middle-class income. Rather than moving to provide a more secure and predictable social safety net, Missouri has reduced programs across the board that help people during periods when they are under financial strain. After 20 years of this trend, the lack of investment in people is showing. Today a greater percentage of Missouri residents and children live in poverty than did in 1996.

The situation within the St. Louis region mirrors the rest of the state but is even more acute. Missouri hasn’t just lost its social safety net, it also has generally anti-urban polices. The situation the City of St. Louis faces with regards to our state government is about as bad as it gets in the United States. Missouri’s policies promote urban failure, and they are succeeding. Much of the struggle faced by the City of St. Louis is a direct result of decades of state policy that ignores or is openly hostile to the needs of urban areas. Cities need supportive states. St. Louis has the opposite.

 Below is a summary of policy changes enacted in the last two decades that have reduced benefits to low income residents or created additional challenges for urban areas in Missouri.

Medicaid: Missouri has some of the lowest income limits for adults to qualify for Medicaid. As a result, many adults with low incomes are unable to afford health insurance. 13% of adults under 65 are uninsured. Over 600,000 Missouri residents have no health insurance. Parents with a child are ineligible for Medicaid if they earn just $4,571 a year, and adults without children are ineligible. Many adults in Missouri working near minimum wage are not allowed to enroll in Medicaid and obviously cannot afford to buy their own health insurance. Missouri is among 14 states that did not expand Medicaid to cover more adults under the Affordable Care Act. Most states offer Medicaid to single adults making less than $16,753 and adults with a child up to $28,676.

TANF: (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) After President Bill Clinton signed the “Welfare Reform Act” of 1996, states had greatly expanded flexibility in how to use block grant funds to assist very low income families. Over time much less of that funding is being delivered as direct financial assistance to parents. Fewer families are receiving assistance, and the families that get assistance receive less than they would have in the past. Today only 20% of families with children in poverty are receiving TANF assistance in Missouri. Nationally about 2/3rds of families that would have been eligible prior to the 1996 are no longer eligible. The result is more families with children have less income security and a higher probability of homelessness, frequent housing relocations, and food insecurity.

Unemployment Insurance: Missouri has hands down one of the worst unemployment insurance benefits in the nation. While most states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, Missouri offers only 13 weeks. Missouri also offers one of the lowest weekly unemployment benefits (45th of 50), at only $320 a week. The Missouri Legislature cut the unemployment benefit from 20 weeks to 13 weeks in 2018. As recently as 2010 Missouri offered up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, in line with most states.

Public Transportation: Missouri provides almost no funding for public transportation. Metro/Bi-State is the largest transit agency in Missouri by far, with an annual budget of over $250M. The state of Missouri provides less than $500,000 a year, or far less than 1% of their budget. About 20 states provide meaningful levels of transit funding to local agencies. Missouri provides virtually nothing. The Metrolink and Metro Bus systems are paid for with a combination of local and federal funding, but absent the missing link of state funding. St. Louis area residents fill the funding gap, with some of the country’s highest sales tax rates. With a comparable population The Twin Cities of Minneapolis / St. Paul Minnesota have roughly twice the transit ridership of St. Louis, because the state of Minnesota has made notable investments in the region’s transit system over the last two decades.

Gun Laws: As recently as 2003 Missouri still had a variety of gun laws and regulations aimed at reducing the proliferation of guns into almost every aspect of society and public space. Those laws included background checks before gun purchases and a comprehensive ban on concealed carry throughout the state. Today Missouri has a permissive “Stand Your Ground” law without an obligation to retreat in a dangerous situation, and “permitless” concealed carry for gun owners as young as 19. Between the passage of the first concealed carry law in 2003 and 2017, Missouri’s homicide rate has nearly doubled, from 5.0 homicides per 100,000 to 9.8 homicides per 100,000 people.

Violent Crime: Missouri has the second highest statewide homicide rate in the United States. While states generally do little direct intervention in terms of local law enforcement, Missouri has a radically underpaid and inadequate re-entry and probation system. Missouri incarcerates an above average number of juvenile offenders and has an above average recidivism rate, indications that our state has a poor record of rehabilitation for people with criminal convictions.

School Funding: After years of failing to meet legal commitments for state funding of local school districts, in 2016 Missouri Legislators lowered the bar and reduced the level of funding required. Missouri scores fairly low on equity of per pupil funding between high and low income districts, and low on equity between districts with larger non-white populations. Missouri ranks 35th in per pupil spending for pre-K programs.

Public Defenders: The chronic under-funding of Missouri’s public defender system has continued under both Republican and Democratic Governors. Today only Mississippi spends less per person on public defenders than Missouri does. Average spending on a public defender system is 50% to 200% higher in every Midwestern state. The outcome is longer waits for the accused to get to trial, while frequently incarcerated in county level jail systems. Longer waits drive up costs for cities like St. Louis, and delays serve both the accused and victims of crime poorly.

In summary, Missouri has “successfully” dismantled its social safety net. Across virtually every category, Missouri does less, and does it less well, than most other states. The Missouri of 2019 is doing less than the Missouri of the mid-1990’s to assist our lowest income residents and children. Low-income residents in Missouri live closer to desperation than those in other states. Over this period, both crime and poverty have increased within the state. The state’s largest urban area and economic engine, St. Louis, is obviously struggling with the effects of hostile state policies. When, how are we going to change course?

The Tim Fitch Bankruptcy Pitch Glitch

There are things you can just "declare." Declare your love for pizza. Declare you are running for office. Declare you've accepted a new job. Type it up. Hit send. Boom, you've declared it. Here declare is just a synonym for "announce." And then there are things cities can't just "declare" as they see fit. Bankruptcy, for instance. St. Louis County Councilmember Tim Fitch doesn't seem to grasp the difference in his recent Post-Dispatch editorial. He suggests bankruptcy for the City of St. Louis as the solution to the region's challenges. "Why not just not just do it, and save the county from pulled being down with them." 

Let's pull that sentence apart. First, "Just do it." A municipal bankruptcy is not something you "just do." A municipal bankruptcy is the end of a very long process during which all the normal services local government provides grind to a halt. A municipal bankruptcy is a financial state in which a city literally can't pay its bills. Can't make this week's payroll, can't make next week's scheduled debt payment. Fitch suggests we follow Detroit's path into bankruptcy. When Detroit entered bankruptcy in 2013, its one year operating deficit was something like $328 million. For a single year. I am not a cheerleader for St. Louis' finances, but we are nowhere near the dire shape they were in.  

Second, "Save the county from being pulled down with them." Is there really a them? Fitch has plenty of disdain for St. Louis, but let's not assume everyone in the County hates St. Louis. We are all in this together, whether we acknowledge it or not. We both need each other. A hundred thousand County residents work in the City. Untold numbers of County residents own businesses or property in the City, have family here, and are regularly in the City for parks, events, restaurants, work, friends. In short, life. And it works the other way too. Fitch wants to imagine a moat around the City that prevents contact between two neighboring civilizations. Reality is obviously much different, hundreds of thousands of people cross between City and County every day. There is no them. There is only us.  

But Detroit. Detroit was truly a financial wreck, and no one should take pleasure in that, or see it as a path to follow. In the run-up to bankruptcy, residents in Detroit endured over a decade where basic services just dried up. Miles of streetlights were out. Police response times to emergency calls were an hour. Fire trucks were dispatched by fax machine. Public employee salaries were cut, and on and on. Paralleling the financial and service collapse was a rolling human tragedy for residents. This is what we're trying to avoid, not copy!  

Are there shades of Detroit in St. Louis? Of course. But municipal  bankruptcy is not a first, second or third option for a City. It's the last option when there are literally no other options. Why? Because the years preceding a bankruptcy are absolute misery for residents. And Tim Fitch should not kid himself that residents of St. Louis County won't feel some of that misery too. City residents would personally endure real financial pain in the run up to a bankruptcy. Their property values would decline, robbing them of wealth they'd accumulated (particularly working class home owners). The built environment around them would decay, including public infrastructure and private property. And the crisis in confidence that comes before a bankruptcy would lead to more population decline and disinvestment.  

Is St. Louis in great shape? No. Are we in Detroit 2013 shape? Also no. The median value of a single family home in St. Louis: $123,800. Detroit: $42,800. Per capita income in St. Louis: $26,739. Detroit: $16,433. St. Louis poverty rate: 25% Detroit: 38%. Correcting for population size, St. Louis has only roughly 25% of the debt Detroit had when it entered bankruptcy. While St. Louis is obviously in a degree of distress, we simply maintain a larger tax base relative to our obligations than Detroit has. Despite headline grabbing quotes to the contrary, St. Louis is not a recession away from bankruptcy.  

And what happens during a bankruptcy? Cities have two main categories of long term obligations. Debt to various financial institutions and investors for capital improvements, and pension and related expenses for retirees. Bankruptcy in Detroit meant already retired public workers had their existing pensions reduced. In some cases they actually had to pay back funds that had accumulated pre-retirement which they had yet to withdraw. When Fitch says of bankruptcy, "just do it," He's saying, "Let's just take away some the benefits we owe retired police officers, surviving spouses, firefighters, and other public employees." Guess where many of these retired workers live: St. Louis County. If bankruptcy comes, it's coming just as hard for Tim Fitch's constituents.  

Unification of the region would ultimately improve everyone's overall financial position, and allow growth anywhere within the region to benefit all of us. But just as importantly, it puts us all on the same team. St. Louis may be bumping along with a flat tire, but Tim Fitch's suggestion that we smash out the windows too isn't going to help. Fragmentation has been recognized as a drag on the region for over 100 years, no one recently invented this idea. We can keep bumping along, throwing stones at each other across that invisible line 600 feet west of Skinker, or we can put some air on the tires.

 

Vote Bret Narayan for 24th Ward Alderman - Tuesday, March 5th

Alderman in St. Louis can be a funny job in that there isn’t much of job description. It’s a mix legislating, research, reading, informing, listening, planning, helping people, delivering bad news, figuring things out, and dealing with the constant churn of political frustrations and disappointments. Political views are important, but so are a candidate’s personal traits and characteristics. You only learn by learning on the job. I’ll be voting for Bret Narayan because he brings the right mix of knowledge, experience, and commitment, in addition to a record of treating people with kindness and respect.

Bret has already been engaged in some statewide political efforts, and he’s been an active member in leadership of a neighborhood organization, which is where I met him. As an attorney, his knowledge of the law, and how people interact with the civil and criminal justice systems will serve residents well. While there is always something new to learn in local government, Bret will hit the ground running from day one.

He’s handled his campaign well and showed the organizational skills required to do an effective job for residents. He’s displayed a commitment to professional and personal ethics that make him a trustworthy candidate. He is an outgoing, approachable person who residents will be able to count on to treat them fairly, even if they have political or ideological differences.

I’m not endorsing him because I think he’ll always make all the same decisions I would make, but because I trust his process to do his own research and arrive at his own conclusions. He’ll be an independent thinker capable of making his own way at City Hall.

We happen to live in a moment when small political differences, even among friends, can quickly escalate into unkind words and accusations. There is a particular claustrophobic element to this in local politics. You know your critics. You see them at the grocery store. Their kids are in school with your kids. You see what they’ve posted about you. Even in the last few years the landscape has changed, and I see many officeholders privately struggle with this, as I sometimes did. So I’ll close with something Bret wrote last year in remembrance of his father, because taking this to heart will serve him, and the rest of us well:

“He taught me that being kind will typically take you much further than being hostile, even when you have fundamental disagreements with someone.”

Join me in voting for Bret Narayan for 24th Ward Alderman on Tuesday, March 5th.

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Another Look At Former Alderman Tom Bauer

The following is something I take no pleasure in writing, but feel is essential information for St. Louis voters. I prevailed against Tom Bauer in two elections, so I didn't need to dwell on this information. Bauer’s history and actions deserve another look, so we remember how he conducted himself while in office. Filing for local office begins on November 26th, and I fully expect former alderman Tom Bauer to make another effort to return to the very seat from which voters recalled him in 2005. Bauer has no business being anywhere near local government. Years have passed and many people may have forgotten, or never heard the story of Tom Bauer's time in office. Bauer is a lawyer by trade. He was given a chance to be alderman from 1999 to 2005. He used his time as alderman to outrageously file multiple lawsuits against his own constituents, all of which he eventually lost. Less well known, he was also friends with, and personally represented one of the country's most notorious white supremacists in court. Bauer may be a perennial candidate, but he is a man with appalling judgment and character.  

A man is known by the company he keeps. In the case of Tom Bauer, that company is truly despicable. Here's the story of Bauer's relationship with Frank Weltner, another Dogtown resident, and a man who for a time was one of the most prominent white supremacist figures in the United States. 

Frank Weltner "enjoyed" a period of infamy from roughly 2003 to 2006. Weltner became infamous when a website he began hosting in 1998, "Jew Watch," sadly reached the top of Google search results for the word, "Jew." Suddenly this bookish but virulently racist man was in the national spotlight. The Post-Dispatch profiled him in 2005. [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Dogtown Man is Face of White Power Here," 1/16/2005] "The blacks are the storm troopers of the Jews," he told the newspaper. A few months later a New York Times profile included him as a main figure in the expanding world of online racial hatred. "Mr. Weltner, a 63-year-old former local radio talk show host, began what white power groups say is the first round-the-clock racial Webcast this year." Weltner was not just a weird, closeted racist with quiet personal views - he was an outspoken, prolific writer, radio host, and conspiracy theorist with one of the most well trafficked racist websites on earth. His views were obvious and unavoidable. And Tom Bauer, while alderman, was his friend and lawyer.  

Weltner's age and academic facade fooled some into thinking he was a quirky old man or a "get off my lawn" type. Don't be fooled. Locally, he was deeply involved with the National Alliance, one of the most active white supremacist organizations in the county at the time. He hosted an explicitly racist radio show. He organized events and rallies, and recruited new people to his white supremacist organization in local papers and even in ads on Metrolink. And the prevalence of his website gave him a national profile that even the New York Times noticed. Weltner's work on the web, which is too foul and manic to delve into here, was very much the prelude to the "alt-right" that has gained prominence in subsequent years. When we bought our first house in Dogtown in 2006, within days it was flyered with anti-Semitic literature by a Weltner group. Weltner sought to "inspire" people nationally and intimidate people locally. "It's the lone wolves who really can inflict violence and listen to the Frank Weltners. He inspires others." Karen Aroesty, of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Post-Dispatch in 2005.  

While Weltner is still active and still spreading a message of hate, his downfall began in late 2005. Just days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Weltner registered multiple websites designed to fraudulently solicit donations for hurricane victims, and steer them into his own bank account. He was prosecuted for fraud by the Missouri Attorney General and part of his conviction prevented him from further running websites. Weltner wasn't just a racist, he was a man willing to steal donations and prey upon people's charity. Despite this, Bauer continued to associate with him, using him as a campaign surrogate and calling him a "supporter" to the Post-Dispatch even after these charges were filed. [St. Louis Post Dispatch, "Local, Very Local" 12/8/2005]  

Which is to say, Tom Bauer knew exactly who Frank Weltner was. Despite that, (or because of it?) Bauer was Weltner's friend, attorney, and associate. While alderman, Bauer palled around with one of the country's most notorious white supremacist "thinkers." And he admitted it. For just a glimpse of the Bauer/Weltner alliance, see the timeline below: 

1998 - Weltner began hosting "Jew Watch" website

2003 - Website received national attention after climbing Google search rankings

2004 - Tom Bauer, while alderman, became Frank Weltner's attorney

2005 - January - Weltner's racism was profiled by the Post-Dispatch

2005 - April - Weltner's racism and websites were profiled by the New York Times

2005 - September - Bauer removed from office by voters

2005 - September - Weltner charged by Attorney General with fraud

2005 - November - Weltner operated as campaign surrogate for Bauer, Bauer called him a "supporter" and one of "our guys" in run-up to new election 

I can't see inside another's heart. But I can make a determination of someone's judgment. And so can you. While in office, Bauer used his time to file multiple lawsuits against his own constituents for libel. His legal attacks on voters who disagreed with him eventually led to his recall. He took on as a legal client one of the country's most notorious white supremacists. When given a chance to clarify his relationship with Weltner by the Post-Dispatch, Bauer called Weltner a "supporter." Which, of course, is true. Bauer was the candidate of choice for Missouri's leading white supremacist.  

And before I conclude, let me spare a thought for one of Bauer's other friends and campaign staff. Again - the company you keep. Matt Frederick has been posing as a local government "watchdog" in St. Louis for a number of years. But he was a big Bauer supporter, and relentless critic of me, regardless of what I was doing. Frederick worked on Bauer's campaign's against me in 2011 and 2015. Frederick is a keen follower of, and commenter on, local politics. He's always looking for a conspiracy behind the headline. A relative of Frederick works with Bauer and has been his campaign treasurer since 1998. Matt Frederick knows Tom Bauer's history. He knows Tom Bauer was the friend and attorney of one of the country's most prominent white supremacists. But still, Frederick was paid by Bauer to help get him back in office. Matt Frederick campaigned to elect the attorney for a notorious white supremacist.  

Let's stop tip-toeing around this. There is no shortage of level-headed, decent people who can serve in these offices. It's time to sweep away Tom Bauer and move on. If and when Bauer files, remind him, his campaign staff, and his surrogates, of his close association with one of the most vile, hateful, racist personalities in our city, and his egregious abuse of his own constituents.

 

 

 

A New Direction in 2019

Being elected to serve as alderman in St. Louis has been an honor and privilege, and I want to thank voters in the 24th ward for choosing me to represent them twice, in 2011 and 2015. I am proud of my accomplishments at City Hall and in the 24th Ward over the last seven and a half years. I have decided that I will not be running for a third term in the spring of 2019, and wanted to announce that now so other interested candidates would have time to make a decision and plan a campaign. I doubt I will be endorsing anyone to replace me - may the best woman or man win (and make sure they repave Clayton and Southwest Ave - they are next on the list).

I've enjoyed many aspects of this job and look at the last eight years mostly with satisfaction, but St. Louis is a difficult City, and some aspects of the job have become more troubling to me over time.

Here is the metaphor I would use: My wife is a hairsylist, and I asked her to imagine what it would be like to go to work every day without scissors. To have customers come into the salon and sit in her chair, and then to explain that yes, this is a hair salon, but no, unfortunately she does not have any scissors. She understands they want a haircut, but there are simply no scissors here. They can wait, sure, perhaps some scissors will arrive, but she isn't sure when. She left a voicemail for the scissor store. Hopefully they will call her back.

Many days this is what it feels like to be an alderman. People come to you because they want help, but you don't trust that help will be coming, even when you ask, and ask again. Maybe this is just what it feels like to live in St. Louis - I don't blame any one particular person for this dynamic. This is what living and trying to govern in a City wrecked by suburban sprawl and depopulation and devastating crime and an inadequate tax base is like. The easy thing to do is yell, "It must be the mayor's fault!" But the issue is far, far more complicated and old than that.

It's not just me that feels this way, I talk to other alderman who experience the same frustration, as well as City employees. It's not unique to me, but it's a dynamic that seems to have gotten frustratingly worse over time. I don't think it will be much different for the next person in this role, but I wish them well. It feels great when things work, when you are able to help a constituent, when you can resolve a problem. But the anxiety that the problem will not be fixed, that the resident will be disappointed, that help will not be coming, has slowly become the dominant feeling of this job. I've come to expect things to go wrong, and I think that means it's time to give someone else a shot.

Another thing particular to me, I cannot stomach asking people for campaign contributions again for another campaign. I always loathed it and I ran the cheapest DIY campaigns I possibly could and raised as little money as possible. Something about it does not click for me, and I can’t gin up the enthusiasm to do it again.

On the other hand, almost the whole list of things I wanted to see achieved have happened, or are well on their way to happening. Dogtown is getting a grocery store, Clifton Park has a master plan. You can safely push a baby stroller into Forest Park at the Clayton and Skinker intersection. The vacant school I looked at every day for 10 years from my old house has been renovated and is fully occupied. The other vacant school in the ward will soon be under contract. We've successfully reined in development incentives inside the ward, and a city-wide effort on the same front is trudging forward. I fought a quiet and quixotic quest to repave the Penrose Park Velodrome, and that too is underway, keeping open a north city park amenity that would otherwise have had to close. We also passed an historic charter amendment to reduce the size of the Board of Aldermen - and if naysayers and fear don't win, it may even go into effect. After 8 years at City Hall, I promise you this only begins the reform that is needed. On the daily treadmill of this job I tried to make good decisions, to know what I was talking about, to not bullshit people, and to nudge forward the good things and slow down the bad things.

I also want to point to what needs to be changed about government in the St. Louis region: Everything.

Everything. Government in the region needs to be completely remade from the ground up. It does not work in St. Louis City, it does not work in the poorer areas of St. Louis County. We accept that rich people get excellent services because they wall themselves into suburban enclaves and avoid engaging with the rest of the region, and we accept that poor people will have poor services because they are poor. We accept that the middle class will endure a series of choices driven by anxiety and fear rather than love and optimism.

In 2000, a year after moving here, I was riding my bike on a weekend as I often do in Forest Park. A driver began a confrontation with me that ended in an assault near Skinker and Forsyth. Afterwards, angry and annoyed but not particularly hurt, I called the police. The response I got was not, "Are you ok?" but "What side of Skinker were you on?" This is our regional government in a nutshell. It first asks not what someone needs, but where they live. What you get is determined by your address.

We largely got here by accident. But with decades of perspective on this dynamic, we all know it's the central problem in the St. Louis region. It's time to do something about it. My parting shot in my role as alderman is this: We need to erase all the artificial boundaries of City and County and Municipalities. The only way this region will ever work is if we are governed as one region, where everyone pays into the same pot, everyone has a seat at the same table to determine the regional direction, and resources are distributed equitably. Tinkering around the edges is metaphorically the same as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. People are literally dying because of the way this region's government is structured.

After 8 years in government, my wish is we stop tinkering around the edges of an obviously un-salvageable and routinely harmful regional dynamic - We should be the St. Louis of 1.3 million people we want to be.

Well I have one more wish - take a look at my résumé, I need a new job in April.



Only in St. Louis. Some Pushing for "Do Over" Vote on Ward Reduction

When voters passed Proposition R in November of 2012, I thought we had put the issue to bed. Both the Board of Aldermen and voters chose to have 14 wards represented by 14 aldermen, instead of 28. While the vote happened in 2012, implementation had to wait until the following census, effectively 2021.

I ran around the City that fall explaining to people why I fully supported a "yes" vote. With six more years of experience on the BoA since then, I am even MORE convinced now that we should have fewer wards. But suddenly, despite what a clear majority of St. Louis voters wanted, the Board of Aldermen has cold feet. 21st ward alderman John Collins-Muhammad has introduced a bill that would repeal Proposition R before it even goes into effect, leaving the BoA at 28 members if 60% of voters approve his repeal.

That bill, introduced this last Friday, is on a fast track to get through Committee with a hearing already on this Wednesday, 6:30pm at City Hall. If you voted for Proposition R in 2012, TODAY is the time to let your alderman know about it. The members of the Legislative Committee are here.

The St. Louis region is defined by political fragmentation. We have far, far more political jurisdictions than most regions. More municipalities, more aldermen, more school districts, more police departments, and way more problems getting things done. When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. Politically, that's what defines local government within our region. A ton of elected officials, a ton of "Honorable So and So's" but no one who is actually in charge. As a result, regional policy is non-existent. Over time, the region, especially St. Louis City and County, have suffered in all kinds of ways, big and small.

A quick reminder - St. Louis has more aldermen/councilmembers per capita than almost any other City in the country. In most cases we have WAY more. We also have the same acute fragmentation the rest of the region suffers from. We don't make policy. Everything is an ad hoc decision. Want to open a daycare? Call your alderman. Want your street paved? Call your alderman. Neighbor's dog barking? Call your alderman. I joke, but only a little.

A normal city can tell you which streets are getting repaved next year. Why? Because they plan. They have a policy. Here? It's literally up to aldermen. Our public works dept. can't tell you what streets will be paved next month. Can you get your sidewalk fixed? Depends on if you alderman allocated money. Can you get a liquor license? Depends on your alderman's policy. Is your development project eligible for tax abatement? Depends on your alderman's ideas about development. Food trucks allowed? Check with your alderman. Is that bridge getting old? Hope your alderman saved some money for it. Is that street between two wards getting repaved? Hope those two aldermen get along. Can we fix the most dangerous streets in the City? Only if the alderman decides to. It's not normal, and it's not how things have to work. It CAN change.

Leadership across this region, City and County, need to take a hard look at their own houses. In 2012 we DID that. We said, "There are too many jurisdictions, too many different and conflicting policies, we need to make this better, and we need to change what we do." We needed to adapt. In an election with 74% voter turnout, 61.5% of voters agreed. The same thing needs to happen all over the region. Instead of 1,000 different personalities choosing how we do things, we need a set of policies that we implement and carry out fairly and equitably. St. Louis County is a mess too - with 89 municipalities, but once Proposition R passed, I felt like we'd taken LEADERSHIP - we could point out their mess, because we'd taken steps to clean up our own house. If we go back, we'll NEVER have the authority to do that again.

What was Proposition R about, in a nutshell:

- Larger wards would mean each alderman was far more likely to represent a more diverse area and have too keep the big picture in mind. Each ward, on balance, would look more like the whole city. And that fact would change people's perspective on how to implement policy and what was important.

- We need to professionalize how our legislative body functions. We have lots of alderman, but low capacity. We lack the professional staff that every comparable city gives their legislative branch. As a result, we don't make policy. We make ad hoc decisions, one after another, without coordination. We need to strengthen our legislative body. That means professional capacity, and we'll never increase the budget to do that under the current circumstances. The legislative branch should be an equal part of government. Currently it's not, because it operates without its own staff and information.

-  Residents across the City should expect, and receive, equal treatment and services regardless of where they live. We've created a system far too dependent on which ward you live in to determine how services are delivered.

- The job, as it's currently arranged, is losing appeal. With some exceptions, the most qualified people in the City with the best professional experience are not that interested in the job. Making the job experience more professional, adding staff, and popular or not, adjusting the salary to allow more people to do the job without working another job would go a long way towards recruiting a more compelling group of candidates. We'll never do those things without reducing the number of people in the job. Within my ward, I sometimes ask people smarter and more qualified than myself if they'd be interested in this job in the future. "No" is the answer from every one of them.

- The Legislative Branch should be an equal branch of government. We're currently primarily engaged with constituent services. The issue is this: While City Departments can and should provide constituent services, no one else can be the Legislative Branch. We need lawmakers with the time and inclination to read laws. To develop and monitor policy - that City Departments respect. We don't have that today.

- It's time we adapt. The City once had 850,000 people and 28 aldermen. Today we have 315,000 on a good day. Other cities deliver better service and outcomes with fewer elected representatives. Sometimes BECAUSE they have fewer elected representatives. Voters in St. Louis chose the same path. Don't let the Board of Aldermen turn back the clock and repeal a major win for modernizing local government.

Master Plan for Clifton Park Nearly Complete

About a year ago we began a process to create a master plan, or a guiding document, for Clifton Park. While Clifton Park is not particularly large, it is a unique park and includes a variety of features and hosts a number of events, including a pond, fountains, restrooms, playground, enhanced native landscaping, walk ways, a playground, and a basketball court.

The goal of the master plan was to create a vision for the park for the next two decades that included professional expertise and neighborhood input and consensus. "Repair, Restore, Improve" is the goal of the plan. SWT Design was hired to guide the process and develop a plan that the City could adopt. Implementation of the plan will occur over the next decade or more as funding becomes available. Each project in the plan will need to be considered and fully designed as funding for construction it available. The plan should serve as a roadmap for the community, alderman, and Parks Dept. to follow in order to achieve the vision of a well maintained, enhanced, and well used park. The final step in the future is for the City's Planning Commission to formally adopt the plan. You can download the 18 page document below.

Download a .pdf of the Clifton Park Master Plan here.

 

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Maplewood Indecision Leads to Cancellation of Trail Project

The Deer Creek Trail extension has been effectively cancelled by Great Rivers Greenway after delays by the City of Maplewood in approving the project jeopardized a federal grant of $1.5M awarded to GRG to construct the project. The project had been slated to begin construction as early as fall of 2018 before the decision this week to return the federal funding and re-allocate another $1.6M in local GRG funding to other projects.

The 1 mile trail connection would have been built in both the City of St. Louis and the City of Maplewood, connecting the existing River Des Peres Trail to the existing Deer Creek Trail which runs through Maplewood and into Webster Groves. The trail alignment would have run along Canterbury Ave. in St. Louis and Greenwood Blvd. in Maplewood, before crossing Big Bend Blvd. and connecting to the existing trail adjacent to the Deer Creek Shopping Center. Construction of the trail, a piece of GRG's planned region wide trail network, was at no cost to either city.

Brown line indicates preferred trail route.

Brown line indicates preferred trail route.

Both the City of St. Louis and Maplewood had previously supported the federal grant application, which matched GRG's local funding commitment to the project that would have rebuilt a substantial section of Canterbury and Greenwood. This month, GRG was already beyond a federal deadline to show progress on the project, waiting for a Maplewood decision to bless the route alignment. A disagreement among Maplewood City Council members about the trail route and specific details of the project delayed approval.

This week the City of Maplewood sent a letter to GRG, with a list of demands and stipulations they required to move forward. Certain details like the width of the trail and the width of the parking lanes on Greenwood Blvd. were points of contention. But more critical were demands made by Maplewood that would have added substantial cost and time to the project, putting it well over the $3M budget allocated for the 1 mile trail. Maplewood insisted on re-grading Greenwood Blvd and wanted the addition of an underpass to cross Big Bend Blvd., which would have been cost prohibitive. Faced with demands by Maplewood that would have added potentially over $1M to the project, and up against a deadline, they chose to return the grant money rather than face an unfeasible project they could not complete on budget, and be punished on future federal grant applications for not completing this project.

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A typical cross section on Greenwood Blvd.

Returning a federal funding award is extremely rare for any agency. GRG has completed trail projects across three counties in a variety of municipalities over 18 years and has never returned an award before. The project cancellation is a major blow to the promise of a connected trail system linking the southwest border of the City to trails into south St. Louis County and inner ring suburbs. It is also an example of the regional fragmentation of local government that makes completing projects across jurisdictions difficult, and in this case, impossible.

The outcome is $3M in funding that would have gone to this area to create a new trail amenity, as well as upgrade traffic signals and crossings for vehicular and pedestrian safety, will be reprogrammed to another part of the region. There is no schedule to reconsider the project, but the dynamic of applying for funding twice for the same project means it will likely be many years into the next decade. Officials in St. Louis report being uniformly frustrated and disappointed that a project they had invested time in planning and supporting is now cancelled by a neighboring jurisdiction.

Ogilvie Letter to Maplewood

Maplewood Letter to GRG

GRG Response to Maplewood

Proposition P - What, Why, & Why it Matters

Here's the essential question Proposition P is asking: Should we allow a permanent two tier system of police compensation, where police officers in St. Louis City are paid on average 20% less than those in St. Louis County? I say no. Residents of the City deserve a police department that is competitively paid and able to recruit and retain the best quality police officers. I'll be voting yes on Proposition P on November 7th.

What is Proposition P? Prop P is a .5% sales tax increase for the City of St. Louis which would fund increases in police salary and benefits, fire department salary and benefits, The Circuit Attorney's Office, and several smaller categories like building demolition and children's recreation programming. It will take 50% of voters to approve the tax increase in a Special Election on November 7th.

Why now? While the St. Louis County Police Department was already paying slightly higher salaries, County voters approved a similar Public Safety sales tax increase in April, primarily for substantial salary increases in the County police department and municipal police departments. When those salary increases take effect in January, what was a small disparity in pay will become a large one.

Issues like this crystallize why St. Louis and St. Louis County should be merged or joined in some way. Now is perhaps not the best time for the City to have a sales tax on the ballot that will mostly go to police salaries. But its also an urgent problem. Our backs are against the wall. If the tax fails, it will become much harder to hire and retain police in the City. So we have to put this on the ballot now, regardless of the timing. Would it have been better, much better, for the City and County to make this decision jointly, to put this on the ballot at the same time? Maybe even to put a smaller increase on the ballot? Yes to all of those things. But we are not merged. We live together, but make decisions separately that have strong effects on the other. So here we are. St. Louis County took a big step and gave large raises to police, and now we are forced to as well.

Beginning next year, the starting salary for a St. Louis County police officer will be $52,208. St. Louis City officers will be paid about $41,215 in their first year. That's an $11,000 pay disparity between City and County. St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar has stated he intends to hire as many current St. Louis police officers as possible. The stark reality is that the job in St. Louis County is also less difficult than in St. Louis. $11,000 more in annual pay for an easier job? You can bet experienced St. Louis police will continue to migrate to jobs in St. Louis County.

The result is obvious. There will clearly be fewer, less experienced police working longer hours in the City if Proposition P doesn't pass. Today the St. Louis Police Department is already about 120 officers below budgeted strength due to attrition of officers leaving for higher pay and difficulty recruiting. The Ethical Society of Police reports that more minority officers have been leaving, resulting in a less diverse police force.

St. Louis has way too much crime - and effective policing is only one means to improving that situation. But if we create a long term, two tier system of lower paid, harder worked St. Louis City Police Officers, and higher paid County officers, we will never have the police department we deserve.

Serious crimes require more time of police officers. There are roughly 36 police officers working in St. Louis County for every homicide that occurs there, while there are only 6 in the City for every homicide. A high number of calls for service means more wait time when people call 911. Residents want quality service, fast responses, and crimes resolved. That will all become progressively harder when a move to the County will net an experienced St. Louis City police officer an $11,000+ annual raise. St. Louis WILL NOT have the best police force it can have if 90% of police officers in St. Louis County are better paid. Let's not let that happen. Residents in the City deserve a well trained, experienced, just, and responsive police department as much as anyone.

Vote Yes on Proposition P.